Galway native Brigid Higgins is an admirable woman with an incredible story. At sixteen, she moved to New York City and joined a Dominican teaching order where her aunt was in charge of finances. Higgins spent 20 years as a nun, then grew restless and left the order. Her passion for teaching endured.
Brigid worked in parochial and private schools and would have stayed in America indefinitely but she came back to Ireland in 1972 to care for her parents. She then returned to New York in 1988, where she began a promising career in the public schools. Brigid was working toward a master’s degree in education when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990.
While being treated Brigid saw children battling the same disease, and so her illness caused her to re-think her priorities. She promised herself that when she got better, she would dedicate herself to children like that. After her recovery, Brigid soon found work as a home instructor for sick children. Next came hospital work, and finally a full-time job in 1995 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in Manhattan.
“Going from a regular teaching position to working in a hospital with seriously ill children gave a new beginning to my career. When I joined the staff at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, I didn’t feel prepared for all the challenges I had to face. Rather than give up, I attended Manhattan College and completed my degree in education. I survived and grew immensely. The most dangerous thing you can do is to stop growing.
“Graduating from Manhattan College as a mature student was a new beginning. I was deciding on changing my focus as a teacher. With lots of self-doubts and after having cancer, the support I needed to get to a new place in life was helped enormously by the faculty and my friends at Manhattan College.”
Brigid was a bedside educator and a New York City schoolteacher whose job it was to keep gravely ill students focused on learning. “Many of my students have graduated from college and have developed productive lives for themselves and their families. Many have chosen professions that will assist other students. A former student of mine said that I always treated them like they were going to live, not like they were going to die. On my first day as a teacher of sick children, the most vivid memory I have is of meeting students and observing the expression on their faces. They met a teacher who had real expectations from them, not just as patients but as students with a future.”
Her work has not gone unnoticed. In 2005, Brigid was honored by Irish America magazine as one of the 100 most prominent Irish people in America. “I hold the view that everything we do in life can be self-enhancing. So I enjoy the adventure of new experiences. Reach for a job that looks too hard and welcome change, since it’s going to happen anyway. The only certainty is change. Risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. Whatever your passion is, love what you do. Be firm about who you are. Be strong and believe in yourself, and you will succeed.”
Brigid turns 80 this month and continues to work in the education system in New York. She works as a relief teacher in a number of schools, where her mind is as fresh today as it was 50 years ago. Through cancer, she devoted her life to helping sick children to learn. Brigid Higgins is a true inspiration.